It was a mixed start for Ian Baraclough as he took charge of the Northern Ireland National Men’s team for the first time with a trip away to Romania, followed by a maiden home tie against Norway.
The squad that Baraclough had originally selected was experienced and had all the players that we came to love during Michael O’Neill’s time in charge. On Thursday evening, news broke that star centre-back Jonny Evans hadn’t travelled with the team to Romania for ‘personal reasons’ but was excepted back in the starting XI for the game against Norway.
This gave Arsenal’s young centre-back Daniel Ballard his first cap for Northern Ireland, partnering Watford’s Craig Cathcart. Burnely’s Bailey Peacock-Farrell was the goalkeeper that Baraclough selected, alongside Leeds United’s Stuart Dallas at right-back and Newcastle’s new signing from Norwich City, Jamal Lewis at left-back. Rangers’ Steven Davis captained the side in his 118th game for his country, playing in central midfield alongside Blackburn Rovers’ Corry Evans. Middlesbrough’s Paddy McNair played just in front of the midfield duo, with his Middlesbrough team-mate George Saville playing out on the left wing, with Hull City’s Josh Magennis over on the right. Charlton Athletic’s Conor Washington led the line up front for Northern Ireland.
The game itself was one where Northern Ireland was on the back foot for most of the match. The first half refereeing display got a lot of criticism, not only from fans but the commentators and pundits covering the match as well.
After George Pușcaș tapped in the rebound of a pass across the box from a brilliant Bailey Peacock-Farrell save, Northern Ireland’s Josh Magennis was shown a second yellow card, taking the Green and White Army down to ten men.
Northern Ireland continued to put pressure on the Romanian back-line, but they stood firm until Gavin Whyte got onto the end of a Lafferty header back across the box, after Peacock-Farrell sent a lovely free-kick from his own half into the box.
The game ended 1-1, but with Northern Ireland up against it for the majority of the match, it was a brilliant result on debut for Baraclough. They were competitive throughout and the lack of match sharpness was obvious. Although it was a game that some fans expected to see three points in, this was really the best Northern Ireland could have come away with given the circumstances. It was also their first point in the UEFA Nations League, after losing all four previous matches.
Northern Ireland Player Ratings:
Peacock-Farrell 9, Dallas 7, Ballard 7 (Smith 6), Cathcart 6, Lewis 6, Davis 7, Evans 6 (Lafferty 7), McNair 7, Saville 6, Magennis 5, Washington 6 (Whyte 8).
NI Man of the Match: Peacock-Farrell
Norway arrived in Belfast on the back of a 2-1 defeat to Austria, with Borrusia Dortmund dangerman Haaland in fine form. It would be difficult for the Northern Ireland defence to keep him quiet, and it would be even more difficult with Jonny Evans again being absent from the starting XI, this time through injury.
Peacock-Farrell continued between the sticks, with Hearts right-back Michael Smith and Millwall’s Shane Ferguson coming into the defence. With no Jonny Evans, it was Ballard and Cathcart who took up the centre-back positions. In midfield, Davis and McNair remained in the side, with Stoke’s Jordan Thompson replacing Corry Evans. Stuart Dallas played further forward on the right-hand side with Saville out on the left, with Washington leading the line.
The opening seven minutes was a goal-fest, with Mohamed Elyounoussi scoring after only two minutes. This was cancelled out by Paddy McNair four minutes later before Norway went straight back up the other side of the pitch and Haaland scored a stunning goal.
The game was pretty much put to bed in the 19th minute when Alexander Sørloth knocked the ball in from close range, with Northern Ireland putting in a stronger defensive display for the rest of the first half.
The second half started the way the first half did, with Norway finding the back of the net after only two minutes of play. This time it was Sørloth tapping the ball into the net after Haaland played a lovely ball across the box. The Haaland masterclass continued in the 58th minute with the fantastic goal to seal the victory for Norway and let them run out 5-1 winners at Windsor Park.
It was meant to be a memorable night for Steven Davis as he equalled the record for most international appearances for Northern Ireland, with him and Pat Jennings sitting on 119 caps. It wasn’t to be a memorable night for the right reasons, with Northern Ireland conceding more than four goals in a home game for the first time since September 2013, when Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in a 4-2 Portuguese victory, which incidentally was also the first Northern Ireland match that I went to.
Northern Ireland Player Ratings:
Peacock-Farrell 6, Smith 5, Ballard 6 (Boyce 5), Cathcart 5, Ferguson 5, Davis 6, Thompson 7, McNair 7, Saville 6 (Evans 6), Dallas 6, Washington 6 (Lavery 6).
NI Man of the Match: Thompson
Next time out for Northern Ireland is the big one, the Euro 2020 Play-off with a home tie at Windsor Park on offer for the Green and White Army. With no fans at the stadium, it did make a big difference. The Northern Ireland fans would make life difficult for the likes of Haaland, but his performance showed why he is one of the best players in the world right now.